Who said issues have to be about facts

It’s no secret that issues often revolve around perceptions and feelings rather than objective facts. Look no further than the activist campaign against overwhelming scientific evidence on the effectiveness of childhood vaccination. However, legitimate issue debate gets seriously contaminated when governments fall into the trap of allowing non-science to compromise public policy making.

Case in point is the current upsurge of criticism against windfarms in Australia. When Prime Minister Tony Abbot described wind turbines as ugly and noisy he was entitled to express an opinion.

But when he went further and agreed they could cause health problems he was crossing the line from expressing opinion to publicising dangerous allegations which have been roundly disproved by countless scientific studies.  Indeed his own government’s Medical  Research Council did a meta review of 4000 reports, studies, anecdotes and other literature and found no credible scientific evidence in support of the perceived health effects of wind turbines.

However, the Prime Minister’s intervention into an important public issue was seemingly part of a plan. Because a week later it was revealed that the Government proposed to appoint a ‘windfarm commissioner’ to handle complaints about turbine noise, and a new scientific committee to investigate, yet again, their alleged impacts on human health.

Was this fresh investigation prompted by new evidence about so-called wind turbine syndrome? No, it was simply the result of a political deal with anti-windfarm Senators to get their support for amendments to renewable energy legislation. And the broader strategy was unveiled a few days later when the government announced it would cut back taxpayer subsidies for windfarm construction.

Now, political deals are nothing new. But for issue managers it was a stark reminder that issues are not necessarily about facts, and that non-science can prevail not just on the Internet but at the highest levels of government.

The idea of a new windfarm commissioner was widely ridiculed, with Greens leader Richard Di Natale accusing the Environment Minister of caving in to the “tinfoil hat brigade.” And social media critics set up the hashtag #allthecommissioners to mock the announcement, with suggestions such as a Commissioner for why chickens cross the road; a Commission into gnome-related underpants theft; and a Commission to investigate where socks disappear in the washing machine.

But it’s no laughing matter when the power of Federal Government is mobilised to foster an unscientific health-scare for political opportunism. Contrast this to the government’s response to anti-vaccination activists, who are regularly denounced by officials, and new policy will deny family tax benefits to parents who don’t vaccinate their children.

As Tristan Edis commented in the Climate Spectator: “It is quite ridiculous that the Federal Government is lending resources, time and legitimacy to an idea – ‘wind turbine syndrome’ –  that medical authorities have dismissed as rubbish; meanwhile turning a blind eye to well established threats to health and wellbeing.” (Bear in mind also that just over six months ago this same government withdrew tax-deductible health charity status from one of Australia’s most vocal anti-windfarm lobby groups).

For a government to enter into the windfarm issue in relation to effectiveness, or climate change impact, or the level of taxpayer funding, is legitimate public policy debate. For a government to encourage the discredited health scare about alleged wind turbine health effect is another demonstration that issue management sometimes has very little to do with facts.


About managingoutcomes

Issue and crisis management expert
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